'Swagger': Film Review

Swagger -Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Rezo Films
A visually striking, atypical portrait of French youth.

Music video director Olivier Babinet portrays a group of minority teenagers living in a troubled neighborhood outside of Paris.

There’s no suitable translation for the term Swagger in French — the dictionary only provides the very literal “demarche arrogante,” or “arrogant walk” — so it’s perhaps the more appropriate title for a documentary that is rather hard to define in a traditional sense, even though it struts its stuff with plenty of style and attitude.

Set in one of France’s most notoriously difficult neighborhoods, this second full-length effort from music video director Olivier Babinet (Robert Mitchum Is Dead) focuses on a dozen teenagers getting by in the streets, projects and schools of Aulnay-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris that made the headlines during the riots of 2005.

Yet instead of concentrating on the hard knock life of their subjects, Babinet and Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen (Jauja, The Man Without a Past) create a colorful visual exploration that’s part urban fantasy and part ethnographic group portrait, allowing the kids to showcase their dreams and desires over their fears.

After premiering in Cannes’ Acid sidebar in May, the film is set to be released at home in November and may find additional pickups in Europe. Overseas action could include fests and French film events looking for an alternative to your usual case of the banlieue blues.

With a mix of one-on-one interviews and impressively staged bursts of pure fiction — including a drone sequence where a fleet of CG spaceships invade the housing projects — Swagger oscillates between a documentary chronicle and something more imaginative, uncovering pockets of creativity behind the rough setting.

Babinet, who spent two years working with students in the troubled area before deciding to make a film, interrogates them on topics ranging from career plans to family problems to peer pressure. Some of the kids, such as the extremely reserved Aissatou Dia, take time to come out of their shells and reveal themselves. Others, such as the flamboyant Regis N’Kissi — a trench coat-wearing fashionista who wants to become a stylist — easily relate their worries and ambitions as members of a minority class hoping to break through socio-cultural barriers.

Compared to a film like Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’or winner Dheepan, which depicted the banlieue as a lawless war zone populated by gun-toting thugs, Swagger offers a portrait that’s both closer to reality and filled with a genuine sense of hope. Babinet’s teens are well aware of the fact that the cards may be stacked against them — one of them explains how “French people wouldn’t want to live here,” while another states that “Blacks and Arabs are not treated the same as the French” — but that doesn’t stop them from seeing the possibilities lying just outside their neighborhood.

Tech credits are highly elevated for this kind of project, with Salminen providing graceful lighting and camerawork to accompany Babinet’s flights of fancy (one of which features a slow-motion shot of N’Kissi swaggering down his school hallway like Rick Ross). Music by Air member Jean-Benoit Dunckel further adds to the underlying sense of enchantment.

Production companies: Faro, Kidam
Cast: Regis N’Kissi, Naila Hanafi, Paul Turgot, Aissatou Dia, Nazario Giordano
Director: Olivier Babinet
Producers: Marine Dorfmann, Alexandre Perrier
Director of photography: Timo Salminen
Editor: Isabelle Devinck
Composer: Jean-Benoit Dunckel
Casting directors: Michael Bier, Patrick Hella
Sales: Kidam

In French

Not rated, 84 minutes